This past weekend, a very familiar face won the CWPA Northern Division tournament. A perennial powerhouse, they were able to quickly reload for this season’s campaign despite losing a number of important pieces from last year’s outstanding squad. Brown University’s place amongst the Eastern water polo elite is one that cannot be questioned and they will be strolling into next week’s Eastern Championships with a top two seed.
Felix Mercado was named Brown’s head coach in the summer of 2007 and has kept up Brown’s tradition of success in his three seasons in Rhode Island. Since arriving from MIT, he has led the Bears to two regular season CWPA Northern Division titles and one tournament championship. Mercado’s coaching career is one that has seen plenty of success as he was CWPA Division III and Northern Division Coach of the Year at MIT in 2006. Prior to moving to the college level, Mercado led Ransom Everglades High School men’s water polo (Miami, FL) to three state championships in his eleven-year tenure. I caught up with Coach Mercado prior to his team’s Northern Division tournament title and below is our interview.
Brown lost important cogs from last year's squad including a hole set in Mike Gartner who was one of the best in the nation. I've watched your team on multiple occasions and it does not look like there has been any drop-off at all from last season. How were you able to keep Brown in the East's top tier despite losing an incredible talent like Gartner?
While on talent we really haven’t had a drop off, we are not as consistent as I would like to be. I do think we have been able to be competitive this year due more to hard work and some great goalkeeping by Kent Holland. You don't really replace someone like Gartner and the other three seniors, we have just been fortunate to get some freshmen to step up in their place.
In my opinion, Svetozar Stefanovic has been the top freshman in the Northern Division and is arguably the best on the entire East Coast. Can you tell us a little about him and what makes him the great player that he is?
Svetozar Stefanovic is an amazing talent and what makes him special is his experience and hard work. He is not the biggest guy in the water, but always finds a way to play big. Another thing is that he is so coachable. He is also a great teammate. His respect for the game and hard work has rubbed off on his teammates and it is making us a better team.
Kent Holland has been outstanding in the cage this fall for your squad. I watched his game against Fordham earlier this year and couldn't help but admire how great he was playing. What makes him the top-tier goalkeeper that he is?
Great size and work ethic. He has had to step up his game while this young team develops into a good defensive team. He has also set goals for this team and himself. He knows how difficult it will be for us to win a Northern Division title and to have to try to pull some upsets at Easterns, but he is willing to make it his mission. He also wants to finish his college career as an All-American. Considering how he has been playing, I think it is very possible.
Gordon Hood is one of those players who seems to do a little bit of everything for your squad. Can you tell us a little about what makes him such an effective player?
Gordon is a very pure, talented athlete. He is so fundamentally sound that a lot of things come easy. He has actually developed his overall game and is starting to put the ball in the back of the cage and take some pressure off of our centers. This year he is also stepped up to be a go-to leader. On a team where five freshmen and three sophomores are seeing valuable playing time, his leadership is well-needed.
Brown has been one of the top teams in the East for a number of years now. What does your team have to do to get over the hump and into the NCAA Final Four?
I think having big goals is important and I feel that on any given day we can play well enough to win an Eastern Championship. I do think that we are a couple of years away from being where we want to be and that is where year in and year out we are one of the top two teams. Last year we got a taste of the semifinals and that was good, but with the Northern Division being more competitive and with St. Francis coming back next year it will only get tougher. It’s important to make sure we crawl before we walk and right now we are crawling. I expect us to keep bringing in great recruits and once we keep adding talent and hard work that will be the pieces that will get this program to NCAAs.
With that our interview ended. Brown’s road to an Eastern Championship begins next Friday against Bucknell in what is an incredible first-round matchup. Keep an eye on this squad next weekend and do not be surprised if they make some noise. This is a well-coached group that has been getting better as the season has progressed. While Brown’s season has already been a great one, they have the parts in place to make it even better.